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Battle with Giant Sturgeon on the Columbia River

Go toe-to-toe with the prehistoric-looking fish that dates back to the Triassic Period.

Battle with Giant Sturgeon on the Columbia River
Fishing for sturgeon in June and July can be excellent. Having the proper line, rod and reel is essential to bringing big sturgeon in quickly and ensuring a safe and timely release. (Photo by Scott Haugen)

Slowly, what little slack was in the line grew taught, and when my son Kazden set the hook, there was no give. Instantly, line spooled off the reel, Kazden’s rod bent and he was locked into fighting position. When the monster sturgeon jumped, everyone in the boat gasped.

“Hang on, Kaz, this is going to take a while,” shouted my good friend and guide, Jody Smith. “That fish is all of 9 feet!”

The rest of us in the boat started bringing in our lines, figuring we’d pull anchor and chase the behemoth fish. “Leave ’em out there,” instructed Smith. “It’s too shallow to go after it and this is where the sturgeon want to be.”

sturgeon leaps from water
Use a stout leader, like 80-pound Dacron, and 4- to 14-ounce pyramid sinkers when targeting the Columbia River’s sturgeon. (Photo by Scott Haugen)

Seconds later, all of us were hooked-up. We had five sturgeon on at once, and they were going every which way. The scene repeated itself several times that morning, the last time being just before noon when my wife released an 8-foot dinosaur. That’s when we all tapped out. We were tired and ready to grab lunch, because the following morning we’d do it all over again.

With warmer water conditions in the lower Columbia River this time of year, now is prime time to get after sturgeon, be it keepers or catch-and-release giants.

Joys of Catch and Release

May marks the start of some of the best sturgeon fishing on the entire Columbia River. This is due to the sturgeon’s spawning season and a rise in river temperatures. May is also when keeper seasons are in place in the lower Columbia, and while they’re great-eating fish, many folks are realizing the joys of catch-and-release opportunities.

Smith tried his hand at guiding during the keeper sturgeon season one May, but he and his clients simply didn’t find much joy competing with so many fellow anglers.

“Once I started targeting catch-and-release sturgeon, I didn’t look back,” says Smith. That was 12 seasons ago.

“We’ll go for hours and not see another boat, and there’s never competition to find a place to fish” the guide continues. “The days are usually warm and sunny, and June is a great time to be on the coast doing more than just fishing. A lot of anglers call it quits before getting in their full day of fishing, simply because they’re tired of fighting so many fish and they want to take in the sights of this special place.”

Smith fished 28 days last June, with five to six anglers in the boat each day. “We averaged 42 sturgeon a day last season, with a high of 131 caught and released by four anglers. I like fishing in June because the water warms up and the sturgeon become much more active in their search for food.”

Smith likes running a double-anchor setup in 3 to 6 feet of water. He targets the shallows because the sturgeon fight harder, jump and run more than those hooked in deep holes.

three anglers fishing
A sturgeon trip may include huge fish and simultaneous hookups. (Photo by Scott Haugen)

“We’re often casting 150 feet into water that’s only 2 feet deep,” Smith says. “You can’t get a big boat into that shallow of water, and this is where a lot of the sturgeon are coming to feed on clams and sand shrimp. When we find these places, sometimes we won’t move all day because the sturgeon just keep showing up through every tide shift.”

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Smith prefers fishing moving water, but not really big tides.

“On an outgoing tide, try to get on the bottom end of a flat, in a notch, or on a point,” he says. “Shane Groshong, a guide buddy, once gave me excellent advice. He told me to think of sturgeon like sheep. They like to herd-up, and when they find a food source, they all congregate there.”

Once he finds a spot, Smith has anglers cast in all directions. When fish are found, everyone casts to that side of the boat. Sturgeon congregate where the food is this time of year, and those slots can narrow, so that’s where all lines should be.

“Sometimes sturgeon stay in the same flat, feeding through a slack tide,” says Smith. “Sometimes they leave and you have to go find them. On an incoming tide, fish the same features as on an outgoing tide, just facing the opposite direction.”

Sturgeon fishing baits
Anchovies or sand shrimp work as baits. Guide Jody Smith ties half-hitches around them so they hang straight. (Photo by Scott Haugen)

Gear for Giants

While many sturgeon caught in the lower Columbia weigh less than 30 pounds, Smith catches several over 8 feet long. These fish are big and strong, and having the right gear ensures you can get them in and safely release them in a timely fashion.

Smith’s sturgeon rod of choice is the G. Loomis E6X. He likes a 10-foot-6-inch 1265-2C and the 1266-2C in a 9-foot model. They offer enough flexibility to make long casts, yet have enough backbone to battle big, heavy, hard-fighting sturgeon. Smith fills his Tekota reels with 65-pound PowerPro Maxcuatro braid, a thin, strong line that affords long casts and holds up to strong, rough-skinned sturgeon.

Smith’s leader of choice is a 24-inch, 80-pound Dacron tied to a 5/0 barbless octopus-style Gamakatsu hook (barbless hooks are required). He feels these hooks are sharper and deliver better penetration than those with barbs that must be pinched down.

Anchovies are Smith’s preferred bait, but he’s not been able to get them the past two seasons. When he can’t get anchovies, he opts for reliable sand shrimp.

“One big sand shrimp is all you need,” says Smith. “If you do get some small ones, just hook a couple together.” Smith throws a series of half-hitches around the baits from head to tail so they hang straight.

As for sinkers, Smith’s run anywhere from 4 to 14 ounces, depending on where they’re fished in the boat and the tidal flow. Lighter weights are fished out the back of the boat, heavier weights up front and intermediates in between. He runs pyramid sinkers because they don’t roll in the sand, and they’re rigged on a T-slider that’s threaded directly onto the mainline—no dropper. A sliding sinker lets fish pick up and run with a bait.

sturgeon jumps out of water
Fighting a big sturgeon, though tiring, is a treat, and few things beat seeing an 8- or 9-foot fish launch itself out of the water. (Photo by Scott Haugen)

Sturgeon Joys

While my family loves eating sturgeon, we enjoy the experience of catching and releasing them, too. Tired of waiting at the boat ramp with upwards of 100 anglers and competing for places to fish, once we experienced the joys of catch-and-release sturgeon fishing, we were hooked.

With this type of fishing, it doesn’t matter if you miss a hookset or lose a fish. In fact, after fighting sturgeon for two hours straight, a lost fish offers momentary relief.

Often, we’re fishing in T-shirts, and if we want to start later in the morning we can because there’s no time limit on when you can catch-and-release sturgeon, as there normally is during the keeper season on the lower Columbia. Since no sturgeon are being kept, the fishing is less competitive and you can rest when you want to.

With spring upon us and water temperatures warming, consider hitting the big river for the peak of sturgeon fishing action. Whether you hook into a 3-foot-long acrobat or a dinosaur of the deep that tapes 9 feet or more and weighs hundreds of pounds, you’ll have your hands full. But you’ll enjoy every moment of it.

girl fishing from boat
Taking your first sturgeon trip with a guide can dramatically shorten your learning curve, as they know right where fish want to be. (Photo by Scott Haugen)
GO WITH A PRO
  • Hire a guide to learn the sturgeon fishing ropes.

Sturgeon fishing is a specialized sport that takes place on big water. If you’re looking for guided options this spring and summer, these are people I’ve fished with and recommend.

Jody Smith (jodysmithguideservice.com) is based out of Astoria, Ore., and guides for catch-and-release sturgeon. Smith fishes every day of June and sometimes into early July.

Dan Ponciano (columbiariverfishing.com), fishes the lower Columbia all of June and July for catch-and-release sturgeon out of Vancouver, Wash.

If you want to target oversized sturgeon measuring 10 feet or more on the upper Columbia River, contact Austin Moser (austinsnorthwestadventures.com). Moser also guides for keeper sturgeon if and when seasons are set.


  • This article was featured in the West edition of May 2024's issue of Game & Fish magazine. Click to subscribe.



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